NEW ORLEANS — Shortly after the New Orleans Saints selected him second in the NFL draft, Reggie Bush toured some of the city's neighborhoods destroyed by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.
House by pulverized house, he studied the bright orange numbers that relief workers had spray-painted on the front — a grim count of the dead found inside.
"It's a humbling experience and it's sad," the Heisman Trophy winner from USC said. "It makes you appreciate what you have, makes you appreciate life in general. It can be taken away from you at any time."
Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, flooding 80 percent of the city and displacing more than a million residents. In the storm's wake, Bush's first few months as an NFL player largely have been defined by his charitable works and donations, acts that have ingratiated him with the people of the Gulf Coast and fans of the Saints, almost always among the more pitiful franchises in professional sports.
Even before he signed his contract, which includes a reported $26 million in guarantees, Bush — often with the help of his sponsors — was signing checks for charitable causes. Through Adidas, his shoe and apparel sponsor, he donated $56,000 to Holy Rosary School, ensuring 105 special-needs students wouldn't be forced to attend schools that don't specialize in educating teens with learning issues such as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. As part of his endorsement deal with Hummer, the Slidell, La., police department was given 12 of the vehicles on loan for a year.
Soon, Pepsi will announce a "Yard by Yard, Neighborhood by Neighborhood" program to build 25 homes in the New Orleans area based on a donation system calibrated by the number of yards Bush gains this season. And Bush personally pledged $86,000 to resurface the field at Tad Gormley Stadium, which was damaged in the flooding and where six high schools play their football games.
"Some guys just play in a place and then head home when the season's over," said Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans. "Reggie's a kid from California who's dived right in to help the community. I commend him for that."
Several other NFL players have made significant contributions to relief efforts, but some say Bush's philanthropy has set a new standard for what is expected here of professional athletes.
"Everybody's been rearranged here, philosophically, spiritually, in their DNA," said Chris Rose, columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. "There's no patience for anyone who's got it all who's not giving anything back."
One of the city's Catholic leaders even compared Bush to a real saint — St. Reginald of Orleans, who in the 13th century had a vision of the Blessed Mother instructing him to work with St. Dominic to establish the Dominican order.
"May you be the burning Bush that lights the way of so many," said the Rev. William Maestri, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese in New Orleans, presenting Bush with a fresco of St. Reginald during a ceremony.
Bush has personally experienced how quickly fortunes can turn. He was on top of the world as the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, but the start of 2006 was not so kind. USC lost the national championship game to Texas in the Rose Bowl and soon after Bush found himself embroiled in controversy as the focus of a joint Pac-10 and NCAA investigation into whether a fledgling marketing company provided his family with "extra benefits" — including free housing — while he was playing for the Trojans. Bush has denied wrongdoing.
Meantime, the Houston Texans passed on making Bush the first pick of the NFL draft, instead selecting North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams after he accepted their pre-draft contract terms. Bush was offered a similar deal but turned it down, leaving critics to wonder whether he was being greedy.
The Saints, however, didn't hesitate, and their fans, who have had precious little to cheer over the club's 39-year history, erupted with glee at a festival at team headquarters when Bush was selected. The franchise has sold more than 55,000 season tickets — a record, and nearly twice as many as it sold last year. T-shirts bearing the catchphrase "Run, Reggie, Run!" sold like crazy and at least one bumper sticker doubled as a presidential poke, reading, "Finally! A Bush we can all get behind!"
So far, Bush has done and said all the right things, even down to where he has chosen to live. He bought a $1.8 million condominium on the downtown riverfront, passing on the option to live in the outlying areas as most New Orleans pro athletes do. He said he made that decision mostly for security and convenience reasons, although some fans see it as an indication Bush is a man of the people.
"It sends the message that he's all about New Orleans," said Travis Sanders, 27, a teacher's assistant who has recently returned to the city after relocating to Atlanta in the wake of the disaster. "It's always bothered me that players live in Jefferson or Metairie," bedroom communities about 10 miles west of downtown. "We're not there."
Said Wright Waters, New Orleans-based commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference: "Reggie Bush has given the people of this city something to put their arms around and feel good about."
Mike Ornstein, who heads Bush's marketing team, said the player will honor all of his charitable commitments but intends to turn his focus entirely to football as the Sept. 10 opener at Cleveland nears.
"I probably have him doing too much right now," Ornstein said. "I need to hold it at status quo. There are so many opportunities coming our way. Reggie never says no to me ... "
The frantic schedule doesn't appear to be affecting Bush on the field. He tore off a 44-yard run on his second carry of an exhibition opener against New England, giving fans a glimpse of his elusiveness and blistering speed. Through the first three exhibitions, he had 88 yards in 15 carries while splitting time at tailback with Deuce McAllister. The plan is also to use Bush as a receiver.
"I think he's going to be electric," Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Just the runs that he's made, when he's got the ball in his hands he can make things happen. Seeing it on ground level reminds me a little bit of Barry Sanders, where every time he's got the ball you're just hoping you've got guys in position and swarming around him."
Everyone, it seems, is swarming Bush these days. But this is New Orleans, and these are Saints fans, people who have grown accustomed to a losing football team and have the fatalistic view that even the best things can sour.
The bottom line is, Bush has to perform.
"Reggie Bush has done what the city should have done," said Darryl Jones Sr., a longtime Saints supporter. "The city should have rebuilt Gormley Stadium. Reggie Bush came in and did it. He showed them up. Now, everybody loves him.
"But wait until he fails. If that happens, we're going to boo him, too."